It's 10 to five on a Saturday afternoon in Ringwood East, a suburb 25 km east of Melbourne's CBD and people are waiting in their car in front of Mr Lee's Foods. At five on the dot, a woman comes to open the door, and families, couples and solo diners hurry inside to grab one of the 20 seats.
"It's very traditional food. I want to make real Korean dishes, how they're supposed to be made. My target customers are Koreans," says chef and owner Young Ju Lee.
Case in point – when he opened in 2015, the menu was only printed in Korean. Lucky for the rest of us, there's now an English translation complete with photos.
Despite doing no publicity and being located on a quiet street, Mr Lee's Foods has gained a cult following in the Korean-Australian community. That's because Lee had already made a name for himself by selling his sundae, a special blood sausage, to Korean grocers around the country.
But he wanted to serve his sundae directly to customers and opened a small restaurant at the front of his manufacturing kitchen.
The menu is short, with only three main dishes: sundae, dwaeji gukbap and steamed pork belly.
"The sundae is a very common South Korean street food. If you go to the market, it's always there. I always ate that when I was young," says Lee.
His recipe involves stuffing pork intestine with glass noodles and pork blood flavoured with garlic and ginger. It's steamed and then served with pieces of pork stomach, liver and heart. You can dip it in sesame and chilli salt, the Seoul-way, or request doenjang (fermented soybean paste), which is how it's eaten in the south-east of the country.
If you look across the restaurant, you'll see that everybody also has a bowl of piping hot dwaeji-gukbap.
"It's soul food," explains Lee. "After the Korean War, we were very poor and this kind of pork soup made with bones was very cheap. You take the bone broth, a bit of meat and a bowl of rice. You put the rice in the soup and you have a meal."
"If people think gukbap, I want them to want Mr Lee's gukbap."
Pork bones are simmered for two days to give a mild milky broth. The idea is to customise it to your taste with salt, pepper, deulkkae-garu (perilla seed powder), fresh chillies and chilli sauce. All bowls come with wheat noodles, and a choice of pork belly, sundae or offal, or a combination. Doenjang and saeu-jeot (fermented shrimp) can also be used to enhance the broth or as a dip for the meat. A plate of kkakdugi (crunchy radish kimchi), which you'll want refill at the counter, is served on the side.
"That soup is available 24/7 in Korea. A lot of people will get it for dinner with a bit of soju. Some people drink all night and they can have the soup at five or even eight in the morning," says Lee.
If you've fully committed to this pork journey, don't stop here and add a plate of steamed pork belly, which has the perfect amount of fat.
While some customers come in and request other Korean dishes like bulgogi and bibimbap, Lee is sticking to his guns.
"In Korea, the popular restaurants only have one or two items on the menu, I could do a lot more food, but that wouldn't be special. If people think of getting bulgogi, they'd go to the shop making only bulgogi, because that's the best," he says. "If people think gukbap, I want them to want Mr Lee's gukbap."
5 Old Lilydale Rd, Ringwood East, Victoria
Tue – Sat 11 am – 2 pm and 5 – 9 pm
Sun 5 – 9 pm
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